Fiction: Classroom Experiment

Transcription of an accidental recording made by a home assistant device and sent to the email address of Dr. Marguerite Van Neelsing, a leading ethicist in the field of psychology.[1] Dr. Van Neelsing and Dr. Cecilia Kennedy, a language expert, further transcribed the manuscript and first published it in Exiled Resources (January 2019). Key words: human growth hormone, cadaver brain, experiments on school children, psychology.
Art by Leigh Legler


Now this one has legs–I can see the distinct viscous, ruby red lines clinging to the glass. More wine for me, then! I’ll pour just a smidge more for a lonely lady late on New Year’s Eve … Ah, now that soothes the soul. I only have one glass a day–one glass I need to refill from time to time, but a glass a day keeps the crazies away. That’s what I believe. I didn’t always drink. It wasn’t until I started teaching, back in the 60s and early 70s. Oh! The pressures we elementary teachers faced! We didn’t necessarily face them from parents or anything like that. Back then, parents still believed that teachers were always right and that children needed to behave. The administrators, on the other hand, were relentless in their efforts to push us to be innovative–to remain on the leading edge of new teaching methods. In our tiny district, the superintendent fancied himself a kind of mover and shaker who would advance to a more desirable school district and really make a name for himself there. So, he depended on us schoolteachers to make him look good. Lord knows he was too stupid to do it on his own. Oh, there were incentives too, mostly in the form of bonuses. We never got permanent raises or anything like that. Instead, he just threw $50 here and $100 there, which we’d all greedily grab.[2]

Well, I was certainly desperate and greedy. I mean, you can’t really be anything else in an environment like that. The desire to compete and be the best just covers you like a translucent coating that clings and suffocates, but you don’t notice it because you can’t see it until years later, once the kids have grown, the husband has died, and you’ve already polished off a bottle of Merlot and you’re starting on a another one …

Ah, the things we did. The things I did for a few hundred dollars over five years. I carefully documented everything, thinking the superintendent would be impressed by my meticulous nature and my ability to use logic and numbers–my ability to subtly observe and record my experiments, which were somewhat psychological and medical in nature. In those days, I was in charge of a second-grade classroom, and I had delightful ideas for rewarding students with air-popped popcorn and stickers. I had all kinds of stickers for the children. Of course, some got more than others, and why shouldn’t they? Why shouldn’t I reward the brightest ones? In fact, I noticed that the smartest and most popular students happened to be the tallest and, quite frankly, I simply liked them better as well. There were a few girls in particular that were shorter and a few of the boys too, and I’d just hate it when they would luck out and earn a sticker. I just didn’t think it was right or natural. However, I tried to put my judgments aside, and I decided that maybe I could help these students–help them grow a bit. I soon discovered that I was developing a hypothesis based on a few observations and teaching experiences: taller students seem to be more intelligent and popular than shorter students, so if shorter students were given a human growth hormone, their brains might expand as well and make them more capable of retaining and processing information. Also, if intelligence is a social determiner for success and wellbeing among groups, then shorter students who grow taller might have a chance at being included in society …

Now, I just needed to get my hands on a human growth hormone, which would not be easy. I couldn’t just order one or make one in a lab. We didn’t have access to research-level labs. I knew I’d have to rely on the spaces that surrounded me in my community–for resources and places to work. Studying my surroundings a bit more, I noticed that there were a number of abandoned places hidden within plain view that no one would suspect. (Meow, followed by the sounds of a refrigerator door opening and closing and liquid pouring into a glass.)

Hmm. Hidden in plain view. Well, a cemetery is not exactly hidden in plain view. People visit cemeteries all the time, but I’m switching focus here, my dear kitten. Try to keep up. This cemetery–St. Mary of the Eternal Sanctuary–was situated right near my house, and I could keep my eye on the comings and goings of the visitors and workers. I also thought I could get the raw materials I needed to make the growth serum or powder, which is what I eventually made. I’d need a cadaver brain of course, and I couldn’t just cut through a skull with a butcher’s knife right there at the gravesite. I’d leave too much evidence behind. I also wasn’t capable of digging up bodies on my own, so I knew I’d have to hire an assistant to help me dig up the body and transport it to another location where I could work. Now that place, where I could work, was definitely hidden in plain view. There was an abandoned factory halfway between the elementary school and the cemetery. Decades before, it was a bread factory, and all of the equipment, including an industrial sized high-temperature oven, was still there and in good working order. I could extract what I needed and then burn the rest of the evidence.

My next hurdle was to find an assistant. It’s not like I could just place an ad in the paper for this kind of position. I needed to find someone just as desperate and ambitious as I was. Well, it just so happened that there was a very well-liked substitute teacher, who was trying very hard to work his way into the school system as soon as there was an opening. So I could certainly convince him to work with me on this experiment and impress the superintendent, thus securing his entry into the system, once a position became available. To make ends meet in the meantime, he also worked as a grave digger, so of course I certainly believed that God himself was placing this man right in my path and together, we would help a lot of children grow taller, more intelligent, and popular.

The first year I tried this experiment is the one I’ll always remember most fondly. You always remember your first, I guess. I had a large class of about 35 second graders. One of the students was a little girl with dark curly hair named Celine who just got on my last nerve. She was such a loud mouth, and I didn’t care for her mother, either. Fortunately, she was too busy with her career, volunteer work, and other children that I didn’t have to deal with her too much, but this girl–I couldn’t tell if she was just lazy or had some kind of learning disability, which we didn’t really know much about in those days. Sometimes she would get stickers and sometimes–actually most of the time–she’d just outright fail an entire subject, such as math. She was good at reading, but she didn’t like to challenge herself, and she said a lot of inappropriate things at recess time. I tried really hard not to hate her, but I honestly couldn’t stand her. One day, I caught her misbehaving and just savored the chance to send her to the principal’s office, but after about an hour of waiting, I found out that the principal was at a conference or something, so I had to send her back to my classroom. In those days, we paddled. I would have loved to see her paddled.

In any case, I tried really hard not to hate this child so much. Instead, I decided I should help her. So I chose her and decided I’d do her a favor. She would get the human growth hormone …

~

Late at night, I’d watch the cemetery from the kitchen window. I often worked in the kitchen late at night grading papers. My husband always went to sleep before I did. I had already gotten home earlier that day, around 4 p.m., and saw that there was a burial then, and when the gates were closed and the sun went down, and all activity ceased, I could call Mr. Samuels, my assistant, and we could get to work. Now, in this particular case, Mr. Samuels had just buried a man who had died in a car accident. His body was not badly damaged, though. Mostly, he died from a heart attack brought on by the shock of the accident. The man was in his 50s, and he appeared to be somewhat tall–about six-foot-two. I wasn’t sure if the hormone should be from a male or a female in this case, but I supposed it didn’t matter. I would be giving the substance to a girl, and I had no idea how a male growth hormone would affect her, but I had to try anyway.

I took the station wagon over to the cemetery and met Mr. Samuels there. By flashlight, I could see that he had already been digging up the gravesite for a certain Henry Mullins, the accident victim. Mr. Samuels somehow had been able to climb down into the grave, open the casket and was beginning to lift the body up into the air and hoist it onto the ground. I had been preparing for months for this already–reading medical textbooks and studying manuals. I even paid Mr. Samuels to break into a medical school in a town a few miles away to get bone cutters, scalpels, and chisels–all of the tools I’d need. The body itself looked heavy, even though Henry Mullins didn’t appear to be obese or anything. He seemed to be somewhat thin and attractive. It’s just that, well, bodies weigh a lot. I really credit Mr. Samuels with the strength and endurance he showed during all of those years that I carried out my classroom experiments. He must have really wanted to secure that teaching position. Or, maybe he really believed in the cause. I certainly did. I truly believed–and still believe to this day. I was helping children succeed in life.

The hardest part was waiting for Mr. Samuels to return the gravesite to normal again, because this task usually took hours, and I was just itching to make the first cut. I really wanted to see if I could do it–if I had what it took to be a real scientist. I wanted to see if I had maybe missed my calling in life and had stumbled upon a new and exciting possibility.

We carefully covered the body in plastic, folded it into the back of my station wagon, and drove over to the factory, which not only offered plenty of room to carry out the experiment, but also the oven for burning the evidence and a meat grinder. Human growth hormone experiments had been around since the 1940s at least, and I’d learned how to make a powder form of the human growth hormone that could be ingested. For that, I would need a meat grinder.

Mr. Samuels and I uncovered the corpse, and I finally got a chance to look at it more carefully in the light. Henry Mullins had thick brown hair. His handsome face appeared to be relaxed and his eyes were closed, as if he were sleeping. I almost didn’t want to disturb him, but I knew that I needed to make the first cut. Actually, I had to make several cuts straight through the hair and scalp. Once these layers peeled away and fell to the floor, I began to detect a smell of formaldehyde, which was difficult to get used to. As I cut through the tissues in the scalp and the layers of fat, a yellowish liquid oozed through my fingers, and it was slick and oily. I’d often carry that smell home on my skin and hair–and if I ate a snack later, I’d swear I was also eating the tissue and bones of cadavers, drenched in a dressing of embalming fluid, tainting even the sweetest of pastries.

Illustration of a little girl viewed in profile, with chemical formulas superimposed over her.

In any case, I tried really hard not to hate this child so much. Instead, I decided I should help her.

Eventually, I made it to the outer skull wall. This process would take up most of my time. When I finally made it to the skull, I could use the bone cutter saw to cut out a circular shape and then use the scalpel and chisel to break open the wall. Soon, I was looking at a gray and spongy cerebrum mass. With a few cuts more, I could extract it from the body and locate the pituitary gland, which held the precious hormone I needed. I would then place the entire pituitary gland into the meat grinder, along with dry ice, which Mr. Samuels secured from a local laboratory. Grinding the gland with the ice would form crystals, which I could make into a powder and slip into homemade chocolates–just for Celine, the loathsome brat I was trying very hard to like and help.

(Meow.) No, my pet. I didn’t need parental permission for anything like that. We simply didn’t ask permission–and what parent would protest? Why would anyone be angry? I just gave out chocolates. Why would a child complain about that? In fact, I was a very popular teacher. A very exhausted teacher as well. I was burning the candle at both ends. When I wasn’t at gravesites or in the factory, I was making chocolates and recording my observations each day in a lab book. Progress was very slow, and that stupid Celine continued to vex me. However, one day, after about three months, I noticed that her hair was growing longer and getting straighter and smoother–and shinier. Some of the more popular girls in the class noticed, and they started braiding her hair and giving her fancy ribbons to adorn her locks. They invited her to play games with them and, when there were parties, she would get an invitation. Of course, I thought these actions were a direct result of the hormones I gave her, and I felt proud.

Now, I couldn’t just give Celine a chocolate. The other children would be upset, so all of the children got chocolates. It’s just that Celine’s would also include the hormone growth powder. I also drew a measuring line on a wall and measured each student in the class–telling them it was a part of a science lesson. By then, Celine had grown at least two inches taller and her grades were starting to improve. She earned more stickers, and the children seemed to like her more.

The onset of summer though, had me a bit worried, but I made several batches of chocolates and gave them to Celine, instructing her to eat one each day and think of me. I also promised to visit her each day in the third grade and give her some of my homemade chocolates. (Sound of the refrigerator door opening and closing. Liquid pouring from a bottle.) Just a smidge more. Still on one glass–that’s the way I see it. The summer months passed as I anxiously waited for the moment when I’d see Celine again. All of the teachers greeted the students the first day of school. We’d stand outside the door to personally welcome each child in, and I just couldn’t wait to see Celine.

At first, I only saw the top of her head. Her hair was shiny and thick. And then, as she came closer, I realized something was terribly wrong. The right side of her face was abnormally large and swollen from the jaw to the top of her head. She could barely say my name as she walked up the stairs to go in to the school. The other students shunned her and there were whispers about distraught parents and a mysterious ailment that came over her in the summer. I listened carefully to make sure no one linked this side effect to the chocolates she had been given, but no one mentioned anything like that. I convinced myself that it probably wasn’t the chocolates or the experiment, and I carried out several more experiments of the same kind over the years. Nothing bad happened to those children, so I couldn’t have possibly caused Celine’s deformity. In fact, under my care, she had thrived. I’m sure my experiments had no negative effect on her whatsoever. Still … it was difficult to see her each day and watch the right side of her face swell beyond what I thought was possible for a human face to swell. I still gave her my chocolates though, and I never changed the recipe. I just gave them to her and I was her favorite teacher–and only friend for a while–until she died at the end of her third-grade year.

For many years later, I would still see that large, swollen face–even after my experiments were through. And yes, my dear sweet cat, I’m still haunted by that face. And no, the wine doesn’t make it any better. It makes everything worse. It seeps into my brain, causing me to smell and taste nothing but vinegar, preserving and distilling my memory–causing me to feel something I didn’t think I should ever feel: guilt. It weighs on my mind—like a yellowish, greasy fluid that sticks …

But I did help. I did. I know I did, though I’ve lived for so long with this terrible vision of Celine’s enormous face. I see it everywhere I look and, in order to change my focus–to permanently distract my memory–I’ve taken on a new study and a return to crystals and powders. To erase the vision of that horrific face–that horrid face that I must have somehow created, I must swallow the poison as well …

Indeed, I’ve studied what it takes to take a life. And now, I raise my glass. (Sounds of a glass shattering and a lifeless body falling to a linoleum floor.)

~

Notes:

[1] Transcriber’s Notes: The original transcription, dated December 31, 2018, recorded the spoken memories of retired elementary school teacher Dara Huntington, who must have had no idea that her home assistant device was capturing her recount. In her recount, she describes her classroom experiments of the 1960s and 1970s. It is presumed that she was reminiscing and talking to her cat, since the home assistant device transcription seems to capture a “meow” every once in a while. It is hypothesized that Dr. Van Neelsing ended up with the transcription through the following key words that the home assistant device selected: human growth hormone, cadaver brain, experiments on school children, and psychology. Before her sudden death, Dr. Van Neelsing consulted with Dr. Cecilia Kennedy, a language expert, and together they published an edited version of the transcript in Exiled Resources.

[2] The cat seems to meow loudly that this point. The home assistant device transcription editor switches to IPA phonetic transcription for American English text, which is transcribed here as “meow.”


Dara Huntington: Is survived by her cat and two grown children. An autopsy revealed that she died of poisoning December 31, 2018. Her lab notes have never been recovered.


Dr. Marguerite Van Neelsing: Was a respected and beloved ethicist and professor. She and Dr. Kennedy were once neighbors and, according to Kennedy’s remarks at a professional conference, Van Neelsing kept “one heck of a garden.” She is already greatly missed by her students. Her biggest mistake was willing the care of her garden to Dr. Kennedy, whose own container garden of cacti is on the verge of annihilation.


Cecilia Kennedy: Earned a doctorate in Spanish and taught in Ohio before moving with her husband, teenage son, and cat to the greater Seattle area. Together, they own a Google Home Mini, which is a delightful innovation, as long as it’s locked away whenever anyone wants to tell a story about their day. She writes horror stories that have appeared in Headway Quarterly, Gathering Storm Literary Magazine, Coffin Bell, Sirens Call, Maudlin House, and Open Minds Quarterly. However, she reserves her “scariest” writing for her DIY blog, Fixin’ Leaks and Leeks (https://fixinleaksnleeksdiy.blog/), where she describes her attempts at cooking and home repair.


Leigh’s professional title is “illustrator,” but that’s just a nice word for “monster-maker,” in this case. More information about them can be found at http://leighlegler.carbonmade.com/.


“Classroom Experiment” is © 2019 Cecilia Kennedy
Art accompanying story is © 2019 Leigh Legler

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